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In Chile, Between Healthy Change And Outright Chaos

The social explosion of 2019, a referendum the following year, and last month's 'mega election' have pushed the country in a whole new direction. But is there any method to the madness?

Protesters clash with riot police in Santiago, Chile
Protesters clash with riot police in Santiago, Chile
Carlos Escaffi*

-OpEd-

Chile recently held what was described here as a "mega election." On May 15 and 16, voters not only chose new governors, mayors and district councilors, but also the assembly members who will have the historic task of drafting the country's new constitution.

The election follows last year's referendum, in October, on whether to forge a new constitution and thus scrap the existing one (which dates back to 1980, when Chile was still in a dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet). The vote was overwhelming: 78% of people backed the creation of a new constitution, and 79% decided it should be written by a fully elected Constituent Assembly.

That's part of context, as is the social explosion that took place in late 2019, a year before the plebiscite. And the lesson drawn from all this is that people are blatantly rejecting the current system, the political establishment and all our familiar people and practices, including the very model of politics to which we've ascribed for decades.

People have sought to explain the mega-election results with sophisms and excuses. They say that nobody could see this coming. Others — people here and there who managed to retain a mayorship or a few city council seats — respond with an absurd complacency. Either way, we are not considering the problem at its roots. There is no real or specific expression of contrition.

A voting center in Santiago, on the first day of elections in Chile, May 15, 2021 — Photo: Matias Basualdo

From my modest point of view, there are signs that we are in a political transition not just here in Chile, but at the regional level, and that the recent vote was a crude expression of social protest. Never mind if it is deep or considered: The point is that change is imminent. In aggregate terms, the current voter cares little about what's really going on in the background.

Social and online trends have imposed themselves. I repeat, there is no background, just a poverty of ideas and real debate. The point was to change things, that and nothing more. Another great conclusion is that the consequences of all this will only emerge in time. Let's just hope we don't slide down the slope of populist payouts and a ballooning public sector with more governors, officials and hangers-on.

Looking at the bulk of the 155 constituent assembly members, I fear that the text they will design will come from the heart, not the mind. The problem is that a passionate, possibly overbearing text — one that will then have to be ratified, again through a referendum — is no good. Its scope and shelf-life will be limited.

Finally, it is clear to me that this is the hour, in Chile, of the millennials. We should not be surprised that a 30-year-old economist, Irací Hassler, should have become Santiago's first communist mayor. Nor that Macarena Ripamonti, a 29-year-old lawyer with the Democratic Revolution party, would be elected mayor of Viña del Mar, on the coast.

It may be harsh to say, but our conventional politicians must take responsibility for recent events, and even retire. Especially those who had no vision or responsibility with education!



*Carlos Escaffi is a general manager with the consulting firm IMAGINACCION, a professor at PUCP university in Lima, Peru.

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